That year I read, for the first time, Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945). I was nineteen. It was a set text. I remember I disliked the male protagonist Jonathan Crowe for his self-obsession and coldness, which I thought extended to the book as a whole. I remember that I thought it old-fashioned and too rigidly structured to feel poignant, to feel real. But there was one section that stopped me dead, and that remained for years as my overriding memory of reading the book. Teresa, the intelligent and passionate heroine, she who suffers for love alone, is working in a factory in Redfern and saving all her money in order to buy passage to London. Rather than pay for trams between the ferry terminal and the factory, Teresa walks. From Circular Quay to Redfern and back, every day. She saves money; she goes hungry rather than pay for lunch, and she walks, both ways, each day. And Stead’s description of Teresa’s physical exhaustion, of the ravages of hunger on her body, cut me to the ever-more prominent bone.
It is many years since I read For Love Alone, but I also remember the walking and the striving -- the hunger less so. Perhaps it was all of a piece and I simply took the hunger in the walking and striving for granted. In Stead's Seven Poor Men of Sydney, the city is netted with it. Louie, in The Man Who Loved Children, although described as fat and clumsy -- perhaps indeed because she is described as fat and clumsy -- is charged at her centre by a void that she hears, sometimes, as pulsing with the sound of the hooves of a stranger's horse.
Stead's vision, in these earlier books has such a desperate, highly charged, sensitivity to the vastness of place and the comparatively microscopic human interactions that occur within it that I remember, when I read what I only now realise was just a posthumously revised novel, I'm Dying Laughing: The Humourist (since given away), I was so disappointed that I allowed my interest in her work to die. It is very likely, then, that my view of her 'earlier books', at least as compared to the later ones, is considerably distorted by this hiatus in my reading. Fiona Wright's essay suggests, however, that I have not misremembered their effect. After all, I too read and starved and walked these strange gritty streets under their enormous, empty, buffeted skies that no tourist brochure on Sydney will ever get close to depicting.